Biofuel dreams will all go up in smoke

You can get away with stealing from the land, mining its minerals, for a while. You may see some drop off in volume or quality, you may be able to compensate for a while, you may be able to take the productivity hit and still make out. But eventually you will be caught and punished. There’s no free lunch, though payment is made on the honor system. You can cheat for a while, until lunch is no longer provided.

It doesn’t get any more straightforward than that.

15 Replies to “Biofuel dreams will all go up in smoke”

  1. The discussions, meetings, and talks I have been to that discuss the future of biofuels emphasize closing the loop, recycling nutrients. Cellulosic ethanol (and corn ethanol) doesn’t involve burning away the non-carbon nutrients, instead, those are a byproduct of the process that can be separated out and reapplied to the land. Pimentel’s pessimistic study of ethanol a few years back excluded this aspect of biofuel production, (not to mention, included the energy cost of the lunches that the biofuel workers ate, which was silly) which skewed the result. I talked to Dan Kammen about this issue in an interview on my show:
    http://www.inoculatedmind.com/2006/10/episode-34/

    I’ve got a guy lined up for an interview next month that has a potential answer to the water use issues of growing biofuel crops. Municipal waste is a very good idea, one that’s already being used at UC Davis for power generation from methane (and it makes fertilizer and fiber too), and biochar remains a valuable soil amendment process.

    But in all of this, I’m surprised that a few basic facts are missed when it comes to biofuel pessimism. It’s one thing to be doubtful, but another thing to say that the nutrients will go up the smokestack, when they don’t even get into the combustion chamber.

  2. “some types of biomass such as pelletized switchgrass for instance has a fairly good energy balance, does it not, when you burn it.”

    This is the part of the question asked by the interviewer that Patzek responded to. See the article for context.

    It all goes into the combustion chamber and all that is left is ash. The ashes do contain useful minerals and if returned to the land would reduce degradation. Let’s damn him for his actual sins rather than inventing new ones.

    The main support of his argument seems to be that centralized facilities to which collected mass is hauled for processing, and from which minerals would need to be returned, consume so much energy in the hauling process that net benefits are small or even negative, and so operators don’t do the full cycle. The minerals don’t get returned.

    This is often true in current practice. Land is degrading everywhere. One possible benefit from criticism of biofuels could be that operators are sensitized to potential problems and don’t try to cheat the system. Folks are watching. Biofuels won’t soon go away no matter how bad they are for the environment, money honey, so it is in our interest to minimize harm.

  3. back40, I was responding to the post linked to, not the interview itself. I didn’t even mention Patzek. I did, however, connect this disconnect with the earlier flawed Pimentel study. But am I not right that this post, and the post linked to, were taking this to mean biofuels, not just pelletized switchgrass?

    Back at’cha about damning someone for their actual sins.

    It is good that there is criticism of biofuels for the reasons that you state, such as paying attention to the energy costs of the whole system, and where the nutrients go. From what I have seen, these are right up in the list of priorities for the researchers involved.

  4. If you are responding just to my post then your case is even weaker. The post deals precisely with Patzek’s point: “There is a fundamental problem with removing all biomass from an ecosystem because that ecosystem stops functioning and in order for you to make it function, you have to resupply it back with the nutrients and that of course takes an enormous amount of fossil fuels.”

    Patzek’s response was to a question about pelletized fuels for burning, and my post pointed out that the same would be true if used for proposed cellulosic ethanol systems: “you have to resupply it back with the nutrients and that of course takes an enormous amount of fossil fuels”.

    That’s why farm scale local systems make so much sense. Materials don’t go away. You have something closer to the closed loop scenario of the unfarmed prairie that Patzek described.

    It’s similar to the manure problems of CAFOs. They haul in massive amounts of material for feed, but the waste stream is an expensive problem to deal with. It has value, that’s not the problem, but it doesn’t have enough value to be worth hauling back to the place it came from and evenly spread on the fields at just the right time. We know what needs to be done, but the economic and logistical problems mean that it is usually not done. It’s a problem now and biofuels make it worse.

    Any full accounting of biofuels needs to include these issues, and when it does the value of such fuels is very low, or even negative as some claim. At a time when we need to be improving our agronomic practices and using our soils more carefully, biofuels increase the stress. It’s moving in the wrong direction so far as environmental stewardship and sustainability are concerned, and that is a hugely significant issue given that we expect another 3 billion people in coming decades who will need food and fiber. You may wish that the situation was different, but it’s not. This is the reality we need to cope with.

  5. Thanks Karl and Gary; I’ve been asleep!

    I think I would have made the same points as back40; it has always been possible to close the loops, not entirely, but enough, on farms. Just that with increased specialisation and concentration, it hasn’t been worth it. Let “society” deal with a lagoon of pig slurry. On a small, mixed farm, biomass such as wheat straw might have gone for bedding, which would then have been spread with its load of manure, onto the fields. Big bioenergy plants — no matter what the feedstock — are going to have problems returning their nutrients to the place where the feedstocks grew. If they’re aware of that, and deal with it, good. But maybe I’m just too cynical. I don’t believe they will.

    Karl’s other point about municipal water is great. And yes, willow beds have been used to polish grey water and supply willow chips for fuel. But the municipal water is in towns. And while towns need energy, they also need food. So which is better to have around a town, farms growing perishable foods or farms growing biofuels? There’s another problem with municipal waste, at least in some parts of the world. It concentrates heavy metals. I seem to recall a study of this that looked at the uptake into willow, but I cannot now find it.

    In the end, I believe that small scale and local use of biofuels to deliver heat and power, especially via gasifiers or direct burning, may have something to be said for it. As a substitute for gasoline, in temperate climates, I don’t think it is going to work.

    To take up back40’s point, we may be watching, but the politicos seem to have averted their gaze; how do we help them to focus?

  6. Better late than never. Thanks for contributing. Just one thing; how does the existence of bio-char prevent soil mining? Isn’t it just moving biomass from one place to another, with attendant transport costs and inevitable losses?

  7. Jeremy, just to clarify, my mention of municipal waste was concerning things like grass clippings and other plant matter swept up. That’s what the UCD reactor turns into energy, fiber, and fertilizer. The great thing about that project is that the concept is that cities and towns could have these things spread around to handle the stuff locally.

    Similarly for biofuels, there could be refineries that are supplied by the lands within a certain radius of the plant. While were subsidizing ethanol, why not subsidize the return of the nutrients back to those lands? It could be carried on the return trip of the empty supply trucks.

    Getting politicos to pay attention is a hard one. First, we have to get them to listen to scientists in the first place..!

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